November 23, 2009
A lecturer in music culture at the University of East London, Scottish producer, DJ, and theorist Steve Goodman is anything but an ivory tower intellectual. How many of your professors have spun at Fabric? Under the name Kode9, he has immersed himself in the subject he writes about and discusses. His work as a producer and DJ and founder of Hyperdub, the enigmatic label that’s released seminal work by artists like Burial and Joker, has made him an avid participant in and catalyst for bass-driven electronic music in the UK.
His forthcoming book, Sonic Warfare, examines how sound systems are deployed in wars of mood, sensation and vibration. By analyzing the politics of sound and especially frequency while weaving together insights about Afro-Futurism, military sonic warfare, and the viral spread of music and musical culture, Goodman has laid out a philosophical analysis that links together bassbins and sound bombs. Before the release of the Hyperdub five-year anniversary compilation this month and his book, set to come out in November via MIT Press, Pitchfork emailed with Goodman about Hyperdub, the state of constant hype and the use of unsound.
Pitchfork: You’ve spoken about going to shows in Edinburgh in the early 1990s and hearing jungle, and how that was a transformational experience for you. When you think back to those nights, does the experience of hearing the music, the vibrations and the frequencies and such, match up with many of the theories you discuss in Sonic Warfare?
Kode9: Actually, those clubs I went to in Edinburgh the early 90s that were really influential on me were Chocolate City, a rare groove and 1970s funk club, and Pure, a hardcore techno club. Both were at a place called the Venue. I had only heard early jungle on mixtapes, pirate radio, and compilation tapes I picked up from 1993-94 onwards, before I used to travel down to London for the Metalheadz Sunday Session at the Blue Note in 1995. All of those experiences were just sonically really intense and really exciting and inspirational. Much of the book was formulated in bass bins since then.
Pitchfork: How did that initial passion grow beyond DJing and producing into philosophy and theory, or were those concurrent developments? Was the initial journalistic bent of the Hyperdub site a big part of that shift?
K9: They were concurrent. The book came from a synthesis of theoretical work I had been doing on information warfare in the second half of the 1990s, and the ideas behind Hyperdub when it was a webzine.
Pitchfork: This year is the fifth anniversary of Hyperdub, which continually seems to shake off any attempt to pin it down to one particular sort of “bass-driven electronic music.” How has the philosophy of the label evolved over the last five years, and how does it fit in with your changing philosophies about musical evolution and change? What have been your biggest accomplishments with the label, and how would you define its role or place in the current scene(s), especially looking ahead to the future?
K9: There was no conscious philosophy behind the label. It was started merely to release my music, and it evolved from there. Now the label seems to have an agency of its own, and it just wants to keep moving, joining the dots between what is hopefully exciting, low key music in different niches and not get stuck in a rut.
Pitchfork: How long have you been working on the ideas and theories that comprise Sonic Warfare?
K9: Too long.
Pitchfork: You spend a lot of time deconstructing the virus metaphor as applied to the ways music spreads and shifts. How have technological advances in transmission, both digital sharing and pirate radio, changed the ways that music mutates and becomes over-exposed? How has it changed the ways that new music from urban areas around the world– the global ghettotech– operates and evolves?
K9: Audio virology is not a metaphor. It is to be taken literally. It maps real processes of mutation, transmission, contagion and memory within music culture. Both analog and digital developments have intensified the viral nature of sonic culture. Because we live in a condition of ubiquitous music and media, and near infinite technological memory, it is much easier for local cultures to find an audience that resonates with their music, whether local or globally. At the same time the acceleration and saturation leads to things becoming outmoded, or out of fashion before they’ve even happened. That’s a pretty complicated situation. Hype becomes autonomous from its object and runs away with itself.
Pitchfork: A quote you reference says, “Our discos are preparing our youth for a retaliatory strike,” and you deconstruct the different ways that sound is used to control– armies dispersing crowds, marketers implanting sales pitches, and DJs unifying the dance floor through bass vibrations. With the hyper-niche culture of music and the ability to be constantly plugged in and bombarded with information, has sonic warfare become more of a constant state of being?
K9: The book runs on the real fiction that sonic warfare is our ambient normality, purring away in the background so that you don’t even notice it– that is what I call the politics of frequency.
Pitchfork: You speak about the ways that war has influenced music, both technologically, with devices like the vocoder, and philosophically, like the Futurist’s obsession with the sounds of WWI and it’s trickle-down influence on the avant-garde. How do current wars and military technology affect music?
K9: When a country is at war or in economic depression, underdevelopment or tightened security, it sets an affective tone or mood, which seeps through into everyday life via all kinds of channels. Populations respond to this in loads of different ways, escapism, hedonism, protest, indifference, anger, fear, etc., all of which may be channeled through music as well as other cultural forms. Similarly, technical devices or processes which receive intensified investment during cold or hot wars spread through societies contagiously once their monopoly by the state has been undermined. Most music culture these days runs on systems and networks devised to deal with the aftermath of thermonuclear war. Music culture has a habit of using these moods and machines in creative, unintended ways.
Pitchfork: The book also examines Afro-Futurism and the concept of the Black Atlantic. How is the idea of the future in music being affected by technological shifts and the speed of change, the feeling that the future is here, or new things will be co-opted almost immediately?
K9: The book speculates on a number of temporal involutions or loops in time– premonitions, memories of sounds you haven’t heard, and strategies and tactics used to channel potential futures into the present by re-engineering the past. In this respect the temporal diagrams of both Chris Marker’s La jetée and the Black Audio Film Collective’s The Last Angel of History are really important.
Pitchfork: You’ve talked a lot about dread in music, especially in reggae and dub culture. As styles like wonky and funky have grown out of dubstep, do you think that’s a reaction to the obsession over dread and bass, the way it made negative a positive (I think in an interview, you mentioned how it was a form of collective exuberance over dread sounds)?
K9: I don’t think either of the sub-genres you mention have grown out of dubstep. They came from elsewhere (hip hop, grime, house, garage, funk), in parallel and have just resonated with people, some of whom were also dubstep fans. There is an uninformed myth circulating just now that makes dubstep way too important in the musical universe– don’t believe the hype. Where these other musics have resonated with dubstep fans, I don’t think that is in reaction to an over-obsession with bass, but a reaction to a number of things: minimalism, mid-range riffage, boring rhythms, and lack of tone color. Anyway, dubstep didn’t invent bass, it just zoned in on it. Bass, to varying depths, is the foundation to most dance musics.
Pitchfork: What is your concept of unsound, and how does it affect music?
K9: It just plays with the multiple meanings of the word in English. On the one had it denotes something that is suspect, unsavory, or ignores rules or norms. Colonal Kurtz’s methods in Apocalypse Now, for example, were deemed “unsound.” So that’s just a way of dramatizing deployments of sound whose politics of frequency are not obvious or are camouflaged somehow. On the other hand, I also use the concept of “unsound” to refer to vibrational frequencies that are inaudible, or at least that humans with currently available auditory prosthetics can’t hear (infrasonic or ultrasonics) or haven’t heard yet because they haven’t been made, synthesized or combined yet (i.e., the essence of sonic futurism). So really in a way, the whole book is contained in that one word ‘unsound,’ but I only realized that at the end after I’d written 80,000 words. I could have saved everyone a lot of time, if I’d know that at the beginning. A one-word book does appeal to me.